Fran Yanor, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Rocky Mountain Goat
Now that British Columbians have gotten the ‘green light’ to travel within B.C., accommodators across the province hope the lines start lighting up.
“The most encouraging thing is when the phones are ringing,” said Ingrid Jarrett, CEO and president of BC Hotel Association. “We have some areas experiencing very strong reservations, but the majority of them are not.”
Health regulations and travel restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic have decimated the tourism and hospitality industries. A recent survey revealed one third of accommodations owners were unsure whether they’ll survive until the spring of 2021, Jarrett said.
“Everybody wants to save their summer,” she said. “People have been waiting for the green light to travel.”
According to Statistics Canada, 24 per cent of the 31 million U.S. and overseas travellers to Canada visited British Columbia in 2018. This summer, the country’s tourism sector will have to rely entirely on Canadians.
On June 24, Premier John Horgan and Provincial Health Officer Dr. Bonnie Henry announced the province was moving into Phase 3 of the economic reopening, giving the go-ahead for most sectors to reopen with enhanced public safety protocols. The two also encouraged B.C. residents to support this province’s sites and businesses.
While some hotels, campgrounds and boutique-type accommodations had begun to open before the announcement, the endorsement of within-BC travel signaled the official opening of the summer tourism season.
About 82 per cent of the province’s 3,000 accommodators — including bed and breakfasts, motels, cottages, lodges, and hotels — are independently-owned and operated, said Jarrett. As of last week, 60 per cent were open, but the industry is far from healthy because they are missing out on the international market.
While Horgan and Henry acknowledged the freedom of movement enjoyed by Yukon and Alberta residents into British Columbia, traffic flow from other Canadian regions hasn’t yet been encouraged. Which means, at this point, British Columbians will make up most of the customer base for the province’s accommodations sector. In 2014, 604,000 British Columbians visited Northern B.C. and about 45 per cent of them stayed in hotels, motels, campsites or other accommodations, according to Destination BC.
“The usual market at this time of the year is Europeans in their rental RVs,” said Pat Reimer, co-owner of iRVin’s RV Park and Campground. In a typical summer, about a third of their customers are from the U.S. and other international locations. “It’s a big hole,” she said.
While all her American customers cancelled, resource development crews have helped keep the lights on. As well, she still has some regulars and a few off-the-highway `overnighters.’
“I know there are some places in BC that are still saying, `No, we’re not going to have any Albertans,” she said, “but I hope … we’re not complaining about having people from other provinces coming in.”
Being so close to Alberta, there is a lot of traffic both ways across the border, she said.
“Everybody’s following the same rules and doing the same things,” she said “It’s not like we’re putting ourselves in more danger by taking somebody from Alberta than from here in BC.”
British Columbians don’t usually visit iRVin’ RV Park and Campground as a destination, added Reimer. “They’re usually on their way somewhere else and that often means into Alberta.”
About 85 per cent of the people who normally stay at the three-room Jailhouse Bed and Breakfast in Valemount are international travellers, said owner Marie Birkbeck, who runs the business out of a former RCMP detachment.
June, July and August are the busiest months and the business is usually running at about 90 to 100 per cent capacity. So, far in June, there have been two bookings. “That’s my whole month of June,” said Birkbeck.
“The last three years were so busy I had to block rooms off so I could have time to breathe,” she said. “This year, it’s like, not so much.”
With last week’s announcement, Birkbeck is hopeful. So far, there’s been a tiny uptick in calls.
“I’ve got somebody coming from Vancouver later on in July and we’ve got a little bit of local tourism,” she said. “I don’t know how much people are going to travel. So, we’ll see.”
How to help
When booking, call direct, Jarrett says. Booking services such as Expedia, Booking.com, TripAdvisor and others, charge fees spanning from 15 to 32 per cent, she said.
“Having those direct bookings will make an enormous difference.”
Meanwhile, tourist destinations need to make clear what they’re offering and that they’re open for business, said Jarrett.
The province has some well-known travel corridors, such as the North Thompson, which runs from Jasper through Kamloops, Jarett said. “We need to make sure we’re telling the stories of the regions… so we can entice people to start making reservations and making their plans.”